ISTANBUL – The caretaker and three other Jews came to Istanbul’s biggest synagogue on Friday. After a short discussion, they decided not to open Neve Shalom for Shabbat prayers, since there weren’t enough people present for a minyan.
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“Once we even had a minyan on weekdays,” says the beadle, who asked for his name not to be published. “On Saturdays there were always 30-40 Jews at prayer, and they’d be joined by Israeli tourists. But today it’s a museum.”
The synagogue’s fate tells the story of Turkey’s dwindling Jewish community, which is dealing with rising displays of anti-Semitism and profound fears for its future.
“We’re not afraid of Islamic State and Kurdish terror – that’s directed against all Turks,” says another community member, who also wished to remain anonymous. “The problem is with our neighbors and the neighbors’ children we grew up with. Today, they are fed with wild incitement and treat us and our children with hatred and anti-Semitism. Our problem is at school, nightclubs, the supermarket.”
The synagogue is located in the heart of the city’s old Galata neighborhood, where Jews settled on first reaching Istanbul. Many of the Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492 settled in the Ottoman Empire and until World War I the Jewish-Turkish community numbered some 150,000.
After the Great War it lost half of its population to Israel, Europe and the United States, and has been in constant decline ever since. By the time Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party rose to power in 2005, the community numbered 19,500. It fell to 17,000 over the following decade and has fallen by a further 1,000 in the past year.
The people I spoke to in Istanbul hold the Turkish leadership responsible, for ignoring the rampant incitement against Jews in Turkey and enabling it, even if President Erdogan himself didn’t make any public anti-Semitic statements.
Turkey’s Jews have suffered a number of terror attacks over the years. In 1986, two terrorists entered the Neve Shalom synagogue and murdered 22 worshippers. In 2003, Al-Qaida terrorists blew up a car outside the synagogue, killing 23 people, nine of them Jewish.
With the government’s help, the community leaders fortified the synagogue until it resembled a fort. To enter, people had to go through three reinforced doors and a body scan, and provide a passport photo. The community center is guarded as closely as the Israeli embassy in Ankara.
A Jewish businessman from Istanbul says community members receive frequent terror alerts in the form of text messages from the Israeli consulate. These messages have become more frequent as the threats increased, he says.
Those who grew up in Turkey remember the lynching of Greeks carried out by Turks on the morning of September 6, 1955, he says. Turkish radio had reported that a bomb had exploded in the Turkish embassy in Salonica, also destroying the adjacent house where Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (the first Turkish president) had been born in 1881.
“They grabbed everything they could and ran to the Greeks’ houses to kill them,” the businessman recalls. “They tore their doors open, pulled them out. We remember the Greeks pleading for their lives, they were dragged through the streets. Anyone who saw that cannot forget it, and can only think that if it happened once, it could happen again.”
Community members have been instructed not to talk or give interviews to the media, says a worker in the Jewish community center. “Every word can be misinterpreted and could have serious repercussions for the Jews here.” The only person authorized to speak on behalf of the community is its president, Ishak Ibrahimzadeh, the worker says.
According to a poll commissioned by the Anti-Defamation League in July 2013, 69 percent of Turks harbor anti-Semitic feelings. And the incitement has grown stronger since the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict.
When Turkish pop-folk singer Yildiz Tilbe tweeted “May God bless Hitler” among other anti-Semitic tweets in early July 2014, Ankara Mayor Melih Gokcek supported her and responded, “I applaud you.”
During the war in Gaza that summer, posters were put up saying, “No entry to Jewish dogs” and eggs were thrown at Jews on their way to synagogue. Fehmi Bulent Yildirim, president of the IHH organization that organized the flotilla to Gaza in 2010, threatened that Jews in Turkey would pay the price of the operation’s disastrous results.
Erdogan objects to these anti-Semitic displays and denounces them, calling his country’s Jews “our Jewish citizens.” However, he does little beyond that, while those leading the incitement are the people closest to him, according to one of the people I spoke to.
“In the past, the criticism was about Israel and its policy toward the Palestinians. In recent years, it’s directed against the Jews,” says a wealthy businessman who owns a large textile export company. “Anti-Semitism has returned to our lives.”
He says he met his wife in an Israeli nightclub on a visit 35 years ago, and the two have been living in Turkey ever since. “People ask me a lot if I’m Jewish,” says his wife, originally from Romania. “I say I am.”
“Why do you have to say that?” her husband asks.
“If I can’t say I’m Jewish, I won’t stay here another minute,” she replies.
But the couple’s two children have already left Turkey to study in the United States. One stayed there to work in high-tech, and the other traveled to Africa and works in farming.
One of the man’s employees, a Jew who grew up in Turkey, says, “I’m 54, and by the time I’m 60 I’d like to move to Israel. As long as I feel I can live in Turkey, I’ll stay. At this stage, despite everything, we can maintain our routine and make a living. But my children have nothing to look for here. Nor can I guarantee their safety. There’s no future for them in Turkey.”
The reconciliation agreement signed last week between Israel and Turkey has failed to lessen his fears. “The agreement is not between myself and my neighbor, or between my child and a gang of youngsters who attack him in a nightclub or at school,” he says.
“It was always unacceptable to look like a Jew in Turkey, but we looked the other way because we made a good living,” he says. “A Jew in Turkey never wears a kippa – except for the chief rabbi, because the job obliges him to. In the past, we did it out of the understanding that we live in a Muslim state and there’s no need to create an uncomfortable situation. Today, it’s from the fear of being attacked.
“A Jew can’t be a career officer in the Turkish army, no matter how many generations he’s lived in Turkey or how loyal he is to the state,” he adds. “A Jew can’t send his son to the military academy, or serve in intelligence or other sensitive posts.”
Jewish youngsters in Turkey don’t necessarily want to go to Israel. “Most of them want to go to Canada or try to obtain a Spanish passport and live in Europe,” he says. “They know the economic situation in Israel isn’t easy, and their economic security is very important to them.”